Happy New Year, classic gaming fans!
I’ve mentioned it before, but I rarely get around to playing turn-based RPGs anymore. The amount of hours they require is too great for me to fit more than one or two a year into my schedule. Back when systems like the SNES were new, I was living carefree enough that all that play time felt like a selling point rather than a millstone round my neck. Ah, memories.
As soon as I learned about the 1994 Super Famicom exclusive Live A Live (that’s “live” as in “live streaming”) a couple years back, however, I knew it warranted a spot on my short list. Live A Live’s defining gimmick was too fascinating to ignore: Eight chapters, each with its own setting and characters, presented in anthology style and capped off with a final chapter that ties everything together. Not to mention it’s the product of Square at the very height of their creative prowess, as exemplified by fellow 1994 alumnus Final Fantasy VI. Yeah, that sounds like something worth kicking off a new decade with.
Live A Live strikes out bold with a cold open. You’re ushered straight from the title screen to the chapter select menu without a shred of explanation. Highlighting the seven characters on offer reveals one-word labels like “Cowboy,” “Ninja,” or “Caveman.” It’s clear you’re not intended to be thinking about which of them is the best or right choice. You’re supposed to follow your gut and pick whoever you think is the coolest or most intriguing. These first seven chapters can be played in any order and will likely take you anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours apiece to complete. They’re set in diverse time periods, from the prehistoric to the far future, and all have their own self-contained game worlds, casts, and even title screens and end credit rolls. Think of it like an RPG sampler platter.
There are gameplay tweaks unique to every chapter, as well. The ninja’s adventure sees you infiltrating an enemy castle and includes a stealth element. Depending on how patient and adept you are with your invisibility cloak, you can finish with a body count anywhere between zero and a hundred. The shortest chapter, set in the modern day, has you controlling a contestant in a Street Fighter style martial arts tournament. It’s literally all combat. There’s no game world to explore whatsoever, only an opponent select screen. It’s polar opposite is the far future chapter. Here, you control a newly-built sentient robot aboard a starship carrying a dangerous alien cargo. Dialog and character interaction are pushed to the forefront, as the only combat takes places through the medium of a video game machine in the ship’s lounge, making battles technically a game within a game.
If bits and pieces of this game’s premise are starting to sound oddly familiar to you, then congratulations: You’re on to something. Yes, Live A Live’s focus on jumping between time periods while controlling a robot, a caveman, and a medieval knight, among others, is more than a little suggestive of Square’s much better-known 1995 masterpiece, Chrono Trigger. It should come as no surprise, then, that Takashi Tokita served as Live A Live’s director and one of its two writers, roles he would reprise the following year for Chrono Trigger. A few of the latter’s callbacks are downright blatant, such as when a magic sword is used to cut a path through a cliffside to a villain’s stronghold. Interesting as these parallels are to the JRPG veteran, I wouldn’t venture to say Live A Live is merely a dry run for something grander. The way its first eight chapters are fully compartmentalized gives it a stop-and-go narrative flow completely unlike the traditional unified quest line that defines Chrono Trigger.
It defies other key genre conventions, too, mostly in the interest of keeping the pace brisk. No currency to accumulate or shops to spend it in means you’ll find all your equipment upgrades through basic exploration of the compact game worlds. There’s also no limit placed on how many times you can use your special techniques in battle, and any damage your party sustains is automatically repaired after each fight. In other words, you have no need to make periodic trips to inns and temples in order to restore health and magic points or resurrect dead characters. In fact, the usual RPG towns only appear when a given chapter’s story calls for one as a backdrop. While some players may miss the perceived depth conferred by elements like this, I reckon it’s nice to have your time respected. There’s nothing so special about gold grinding or backtracking to heal up that would justify padding a two hour chapter out to four in my book. The battle system itself (a chess-like affair based around movement on a 7×7 overhead grid) is functional and easy to grasp. Although it won’t win any awards, its simplicity compliments the rest of these streamlined mechanics.
On balance, Live A Live’s avant-garde approach pays off in a big way. The highlight by far is the story. Most of the first eight chapters are just long enough to get you emotionally invested in the leads and satisfied at the climaxes of their individual journeys. Factor in a finale that furnishes your dream team of heroes from across time with a worthy adversary to face off against and you have one resounding success on the storytelling front. This dramatic heft is expertly bolstered by a rich and expansive soundtrack courtesy of industry legend Yoko Shimomura (Street Fighter II, Parasite Eve, Kingdom Hearts). Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t heap some of this praise on the Aeon Genesis group’s extraordinary fan translation effort. Unofficial as it obviously is, they went above and beyond the call of duty here, including unique fonts and text box designs for the various chapters which weren’t in the Japanese original.
About the only flaw preventing Live A Live from joining its sibling Chrono Trigger in the pantheon of peerless 16-bit greats is a predictable one: For all its strengths, it’s quite uneven. When I stated above that “most” of its nine segments made for satisfying journeys, I meant around 2/3 of them. Both the cowboy and wrestler chapters are incredibly bare bones, clocking in at half an hour or less. What’s there is quality material, there simply isn’t enough of it for me to get cozy and start feeling invested. At least I can’t say I actively despised these chapters, unlike the godawful mecha one. Apparently intended as a parody/homage to Akira and other near future sci-fi anime, it’s the only part of Live A Live that drags due to its vague, repetitive, and overly specific progression requirements. As if that somehow wasn’t bad enough, it’s also a non-stop cavalcade of unlikable characters, cringe-worthy humor, and nonsense technobabble plot contrivances. The idea of having to slog through it again someday if I want the undeniable pleasure of re-experiencing Live A Live as a whole is a genuine bummer.
Whatever you do, though, don’t let that dollop of negativity dissuade you from giving Live A Live a shot. Its reputation as a lost classic in Western gaming circles is well-founded. Structurally, it’s one of most experimental JPRGs of the ’90s, and it achieves this without coming off pretentious or intimidating in the slightest. Why settle for one fresh start this year when you can have nine?